Monday, March 20, 2017

Gathering


Folks exhibit a primordial need to gather together occasionally. This fact was confirmed in my study of primitive peoples at Berkeley. I watched a lot of ethnographic documentaries about such gatherings, the most interesting of which concerned the Yanomami of South America. Even after groups of Yanomami fission into multiple tribes, headmen feel the need to reconnect and arrangements are made for reunions. Many of these get-togethers are highly ceremonial: warriors don fierce costumes; women display foods; children find fresh playmates; machetes and blowguns are exchanged.

I mused on this facet of human existence during the recent Jonquil Festival at Old Washington. Food vendors and trinket peddlers were joyous in their profitable work as strangers, potential customers, moiled about. I, even I, your humble columnist, moiled awhile and purchased a bamboo flute and a burger and fries. The burger reminded me of the county fair food of my youth. The mournful tone of the flute takes my imagination to some remote place, full of the throb of recollection.

Thousands of people attended the famous Old Washington event and Saturday the park was virtually clogged with all sorts and conditions of people and dogs. The poor animals had that “let-me-out-of-here” look on their sad faces. I admired their benign acceptance of bizarre human behavior.

But, what about the jonquils? It is, after all, a festival celebrating this wonderful flower. Well, there were still some left, maybe 30 percent. As you know, we have had a most unusual phase of weather in the late winter. The little yellow flowers started showing up in early February. I saw one vendor selling bulbs, but people were not flocking to buy them. I guess they know that there are old home places around with grown-over yards full of them.

Our yard still has a few, though they are browning a bit. Our house, built by the writer Claud Garner in 1918, is smack in the middle of everything and, as we sat on our screened-in porch for respite, watching the great variety of bipeds and quadrupeds stroll by, an elderly man (my age) saw us, came up our walk and said, “I’ll sit and talk to you all for a while.” He did so. We enjoyed getting acquainted, even hearing his heart about the recent passing of his wife.

Shortly, I saw a couple of professors, former colleagues, and I beckoned to them to come to the porch for a visit. It was great to see these folks again. We reconnected and solved all the problems of contemporary higher education in less than 15 minutes. Too bad no one took notes.

As the scholarly couple left, an octogenarian lady came up the walk. She had gotten separated from her convalescent group bussed in for the event and wanted to see our house. I gave her a tour.

After the festival, we went to a multiple-church supper and both my appetite and the human need to connect were cloyed. I want to be alone for a while now.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Wall


In commenting on humanity’s leanings towards exclusivity, the poet John Ciardi wrote, “Everyone in my tribe hates everyone in your tribe.” He apparently wanted to convey the idea that we group ourselves into clans of various sorts and try to keep outsiders out. Love lives in the clan, but will not go beyond it. In fact, often clans deny the humanity of those outside them.

I saw that tendency in primitive people groups while spending time with ethnographic documentaries at Berkeley. In one film, an anthropologist asked the chief of a remote tribe if he could himself participate in a tribal ceremony. The response was, “No, you are not a human being.” You see, the name of the tribe translated as “human being.” There was no way at all for an outsider to become an insider. Of course, we have seen this mindset play out in more “civilized” societies as well. It is as if we build walls to keep those who belong in IN and those who don’t OUT.

Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Mending Wall,” is about the phenomenon. I have heard people use a quotation from the poem, “Good fences make good neighbors,” as if Frost was arguing for good fences or walls. However, the poem argues just the opposite—good fences do not make good neighbors and before one builds a wall, the poet points out that he or she must consider what is being walled in or out.

“Mending Wall” is a dialogue between an apple orchardist (the narrator) and a neighbor who owns a pine forest. Every spring Mr. Pine insists that the two property owners walk the line to repair the rock wall that separates their acreage. Mr. Orchard does not see why they need a wall, seeing that neither has animals to keep in or out, and he says so. Mr. Pine, though, repeats what his father always said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost says with a wink of irony that Mr. Pine likes having thought of it so well. Actually he has not thought deeply about it at all. The poet contends that Mr. Pine will not go behind his father’s saying. That is, he will not evaluate the old saying in the light of contemporary circumstances.

Accepting old adages or aphorisms too readily without thinking through them is a problem in our day. For example, I have heard people say of a vacuous-minded acquaintance that still water runs deep. Really though, he is quiet because there is nothing going on in his head to draw from. Besides, even the saying is inaccurate, because still water does not run at all—it is still.

So, we must go behind our fathers’ sayings. We should not accept slogans or sayings too easily, no matter how longstanding. The kind of help mankind needs right now is the kind that acknowledges the commonality of our hearts. Fully aware that there is hate in our world that threatens us on every level, we cannot forget the power of love, the kind that casts out fear.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine Movie


I am so glad I took my wife to the movies for Valentine’s Day. We had a great drive to Texarkana, a wonderful movie I want to tell you about and a great dinner. Red meat is a must for me on such occasions and I got a big old steak and brought part of it home. I had a piece of it for breakfast with an egg on top, just like in the cowboy movies. But, as to that movie we saw:

Most of us like “coming of age” or “initiation” stories because we have all been there so to speak. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are such timeless tales as they convey a sense of innocence amid the sophisticated. We like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Goodman Brown because his naiveté bumps up against absolute evil—even in people he thought were moral leaders.

Maybe this fascination with initiation stories is what made me like the Australian-made film called Lion so much. Based upon a true story, this movie depicts the plight of a small rural boy in Northern India who gets lost, gets locked into a train and ends up on the streets of Calcutta. As he associates with other street children there, we see the terrible plight of homeless children.  At the end of the story, there is projected on the screen information showing that 80,000 children go missing in India annually. This movie individualizes the devastating problem in a deeply gripping way.

Once the child is “rescued” he is placed in a shabby and ill-administered orphanage for a while before he is adopted by a nice couple in Tasmania. Nicole Kidman deserves every acting award out there for her penetrating performance as the child’s adoptive mother. In her reserved Australian way, she conveys the heights of joy, the depths of disappointment and the quintessence of anger. I have never seen such credible acting in a movie.

Not to spoil the movie for you, I will convey that it ends happily—well, in a bittersweet way. I think the fact that it is a true story made it more poignant, but it was the initiation factor, the coming of age factor that drew me into the action and kept me there. Also, it is the first movie ever to make Google Maps a hero.

It is a story about brotherly love and about compassion triumphing over poverty. It is about the will and hardihood to survive in the face of seeming insurmountable odds. For that reason alone, it is worth far more than the price of a ticket. I was struck by the fact that Hollywood did not have much to do with this film, if anything. It was Australian made. There was no crudity, no nudity, no lasciviousness and no bad language. Hallelujah.

Monday, February 6, 2017

How Did the Magi Know?


Where did the Magi come from and how did they know to search for the Christ? To speculatively answer that question, let me take you back some 2,500 years to a time when young Daniel and three friends were torn away from their homes after the siege of Jerusalem. They were taken to Babylon and forced to undergo a series of physical and mental evaluations. All four boys proved quite superior and were consequently enrolled in a royal finishing school to learn Chaldean language, literature, geography and worldview. They were reportedly 10 times better students than any of the other enrollees.

They excelled in all their classes. After successful completion of their training they were named junior wise men in the Province of Babylon. As such, they were soon called to a somber convocation where they learned that the irrational king had assigned the wise men of the kingdom a humanly impossible task: to interpret a dream he would not reveal to them. The royal decree proclaimed that if the wise ones could not tell him both the dream and its interpretation, all their houses would be burned with them and their families within.

Daniel and his friends were thus motivated to crack the ominous enigma. Not neglectful of their former lives and their Judaic worldview, they prayed all night and, at length, God revealed the dream to Daniel as well as its meaning. He bowed before the king humbly and with the respectful decorum learned in the royal academy. “Your Highness,” he said, “no man alive can accomplish what you require in the edict. However, there is a God in heaven who can and he has revealed the mystery to me.”

To the king’s astonishment, Daniel went on to relate the dream exactly and in detail as well as the interpretation thereof. It involved a great statue with a head of gold and other body parts of lesser metals all the way down to feet of iron and clay. Daniel told the king that these parts of the statue represented future kingdoms, himself being the head of gold. The king liked what he heard and consequently, Daniel received a very high and respected position in Babylon. In turn, he saw to it that his three friends got promoted, too. They were, of course, the Hebrew children who were cast into the fiery furnace because they would not bow to an idol of gold erected by the king. The monolith was probably created because of the dream’s head of gold representing the king himself. All the sycophantic subjects were to bow to it, but the Hebrew boys would not do it, as you recall. Fortunately for them, a fourth man showed up in the fire and the boys came out unscathed.

I conclude by noting that Daniel’s divine revelation saved the lives of all the wise men and their families. Perhaps Daniel’s supernatural feat also resulted in Hebraic influence in Babylon for 500 hears through history, even to the Magi.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Framework


I feel frustrated when I try to text people, especially those I love. There is so much nuance, so much extra, so much digression that I want to do. But my thumbs are awkward instruments of communication. There is not room to tell all the stories inside the story I want to communicate. And no one writes friendly letters any more. I do send and receive some digressive e-mails from time to time, so all is not lost.

Most of my favorite writers occasionally use a literary technique known as framework—telling an anecdote or series of stories inside a larger tale. Boccaccio perfected the method in The Decameron and Chaucer used it to good effect in Canterbury Tales. In the former, plague exiles spend their days telling stories. The larger idea is the plight of the displaced folks but the stories they tell are the focus. Of course, Chaucer’s storytellers are on a pilgrimage, telling their unique stories within the journey framework.

African-American writer Charles Waddel Chesnutt explored racial and class identity in several framework stories. My favorite is Mars Jeem’s Nightmare. That work starts out as an episode concerning a white man and his wife who have just bought an old plantation in North Carolina. A former slave called Uncle Julius who lives there soon takes over the interest and the narration, relating to the white folks a powerful tale about a conjure that turns a plantation owner into a slave and then back again. Uncle Julius explains at the end of the framework that when the shoe is on the other foot, minds and dispositions change.

Earlier in American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne employed framework to good effect. His famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, starts out with the narrator in a customs office examining old documents. He comes across a beautifully embroidered scarlet letter “A” and it seems to burn his fingers. This sensation leads him to research and relate the story of the adulteress turned angel, Hester Prynne. Of course, even the framework is fictitious, but it gives an initial sense of reality, almost as a documentary would.

Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find is one the shortest framework stories I know. The larger story is about a Southern family taking a vacation to Florida. The smaller stories reveal a miscreant called the Misfit on the loose. The framework comes to a screeching halt with a car wreck caused by the family cat, Pity Sing (Pretty Thing). The Misfit comes on the scene and his dialogue with Grandma nails down the most chilling framework imaginable.

I write all this simply to give my view that we should not find digressiveness too terribly blameworthy. One must start somewhere and if another story kicks in, it may be more important and entertaining that the initial narrative. Such phrases as, “oh, by the way” and “I’ll tell you this so you will understand what I will tell you later,” should be welcome in conversation. I like actual conversations, don’t you? You can’t digress much while texting.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Know Way


Aunt Lucille (we called her Ceecee) did not love her flock of chickens but she hated possums, coons and chicken hawks. She lived to get a bead on one of these predators with her old 22 and send them to possum purgatory, coon crematory or chicken hawk hell. She was proud of her hate and bragged about it, but she never expressed any affection for the chickens. Isn’t that just like some people: hating the opposition more than loving their own ideas?

I read an ancient oriental parable about two young monks who had vowed poverty as well as celibacy—in fact, they promised never to touch a woman. On their first day outside the monastery, they were met with monsoon rains. As they sloshed through a nearby village, they saw a beautifully dressed young damsel distressed because the road she had to cross was so muddy. Without a word, one of the brothers picked her up and carried her across, putting her down on the other side.

They walked on in silence for about a mile. Finally, the other brother said, “Hey, you violated your vow. We promised never to touch a woman and you picked that girl up and held her close all the way across the road.” The brother replied, “Yes, that is true. But I put her down on the other side of the road about a mile back. You, however, still carry her.” Isn’t that just like some people: making judgments about others based on appearances while their own hearts are impure?

Aesop told a story about a sleek and well-fed mastiff dog, living as a pet behind his master’s house. An old patchy and skinny wolf approached his yard and said, “How do you remain so fat and healthy? I have had to work very hard this year for just the minimum of food. Where do you get your meals?” The dog said, “Oh, those humans in that house yonder feed me regularly, really good food. In fact, I have a few ribs left from my dinner that I would be willing to share if you care to indulge.” Creeping into the lighted yard, the wolf said, “Absolutely, but what is that shiny thing about your neck that trails off to that peg in the ground?” The dog said, “Oh, that is a chain. The humans keep me chained up back here. See I am a watchdog and…” The wolf replied over his shoulder as he crept back into the woods, “Goodbye.” Isn’t that dog just like some people: those attached to their own comfortable place so much that they are captives of it or, isn’t that wolf just like those who risk all for personal freedom?

William Hazlitt said we cannot hate anyone that we truly know. And, in Bible language anyway, “know” is related to “love” as in “Adam knew his wife and they brought forth young.” We cannot really know people through social media alone. Real knowledge of others requires relationships—the kind that lead to love. To know, know, know you is to love, love, love you and…….”

Monday, January 16, 2017

He Knows Me


The Mississippi writer William Faulkner was a symbolist of the first order. What he was writing about was not always what he was writing about. For example, in the famous story, “The Bear,” he winks magically about things both being and not being what they seem. The old grizzly himself, Ben, is more than just a bear. Most commentators think of him as an embodiment of the wilderness itself, representing all that is wild and free. I suspect Old Ben was intended to embody more than that, though.

One scene in the story has 10-year old Ike, who wants more than anything to lay eyes on the old denizen of the woods, has been place on a stand by Sam Fathers where he may possibly get a glimpse of the bear. Sam is half Chickasaw and half African, a master woodsman who has become a mentor for the kid. Sam leaves Ike alone on the stand for a long time. While there, the boy suddenly feels that he is being watched. It is a hair-raising experience. He knows deeply within himself that the old bear is observing him.

When Sam arrives late in the day he says, “You didn’t see him, did you?” Ike replies that he did not but that he was aware of his presence. To this, Sam simply says, “He done the looking.” Astonished, Ike asks, “You mean he knows me?”

That is a poignant moment on both the literal and symbolic level. Literally, many of us have had the eerie experience of feeling watched when there was no one around. But on the symbolic level, it may depict Ike’s discovery that God (some would call it the spirit of the wilderness) is aware of him. That is a profound, life-changing discovery for all of us, that we are known by deity, and it certainly matures the kid. I would call it a salvation experience, for shortly after that moment, Ike, with gun in hand, does see Old Ben up close and personal. Yet he cannot shoot.

Sam Fathers has no words to explain to the boy why he could not pull the trigger, but Ike’s older relative tries to by reading him Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” explaining that he could not bring himself to destroy the thing that had put him in touch with himself so earnestly and intensely. When the older relative asks him if he understands that the bear represented love and honor and compassion and sacrifice, as well as the will and hardihood to survive, Ike says yes. He understands.

I think Faulkner wanted his reader to understand that, too. Although I do not think a Christian worldview informed the story in any specific way, I do believe that the compounding history of Christian thought in Western literature led the word-drunk Mississippian to symbolize God by way of an old three-toed bear. Thus, I see “The Bear” not just as an initiation story, but truly a story of conversion.